By Pawn or by Brawn: Inside the Chessboxing Movement

Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff
Courtesy of Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In April 2017, an anesthetist from Poland named Michal Adamski climbed into a ring in Berlin clad only in boxing shorts and sat down in front of a chess board. His opponent was Stephen Kring, a 50-year-old teacher from Sweden.

Adamski and Kring—wearing earphones to muffle the crowd noise—sat in front of the board for three minutes, and quickly moved the game pieces around. When the time was up, they had one minute to don boxing gloves and mouthpieces before mounting a frenzied physical attack on one another. Then it was back to the board. After every exhausting boxing round, the men drew in large breaths and attempted to focus on a cerebral pursuit with adrenaline, fatigue, and trickling blood compromising their every decision.

The opponents were scheduled to alternate chess with boxing for 11 rounds total, but Adamski—who is two decades Kring’s junior—was able to avoid any mistakes on the board and overwhelm Kring in the ring, forcing Kring’s corner to throw in the towel during the sixth round. Later in the evening, an Italian physicist named Luigi Sbailò won his bout by checkmate with only seconds left to spare.

The fights made up the program of Intellectual Fight Club VII, part of a series of events that hosts amateurs of varying experience levels in chessboxing, a staple of weird news headlines since its inception in 2003. It’s less a combination of boxing and chess than it is a test of how focused contestants can remain while concussive blows blur their board strategy.

“Chess is all about making decisions,” George Krasnopolskiy, the founder of USA Chessboxing, tells Mental Floss. “How are you going to make those decisions after you’ve been punched in the face and you’re tired?”

With fewer than 2000 participants worldwide—600 of them in India alone—it doesn’t appear that many people want to answer that question for themselves. Yet chessboxing perseveres in all corners of the world, inviting a very particular breed of man and woman who want to take the war metaphor inherent in chess to its literal conclusion. To succeed in the States, it will have to gather structure, solicit regulation, and find a way to reconcile the very docile act of a table game with the looming threat of a broken jaw.

“Very few chess players are looking to learn how to box,” Krasnopolskiy says. Even fewer want to bleed.

 
 

For all its intricacies, chess has proven to be one of the more adaptable board games in recent history. There’s speed chess, which places compressed time limits on a player's turn; blindfolded chess, which forces players to try and keep track of pieces in their heads; and team chess, which groups players into squads.

While temper tantrums have been on display during the occasional high-stakes game of professional chess between rivals—troubled grandmaster Bobby Fischer was prone to emotional outbursts that could delay games—it appears few have ever thought to purposely incite violence during matches. That changed in 2003, when Dutch performance artist and painter Iepe Rubingh came across a 1992 French comic book titled Froid Équateur. In it, Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal depicted an alternative future in which chess was played on a giant, human-sized board, where the players bludgeoned one another.

A chess board awaits two boxers between rounds
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

Rubingh, with his interest piqued by Bilal's panels, founded the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO), a sanctioning body that consisted solely of Rubingh. After training in boxing for nine months, he won the inaugural world championship in Amsterdam in 2003 after his opponent exceeded his allotted time to make a move during the chess portion.

“Looking around at the 1000 or so people at the [first] show, I had the feeling it could become a real sport,” Rubingh tells Mental Floss. “I had done cross-country skiing [and] table tennis, but this was the most difficult and most rewarding sport.”

What Rubingh saw was more than the wry social commentary of the comic book. His chessboxing would involve three-minute rounds that alternated between chess and fighting, with the idea that one would be transformed by the addition of the other. If you’re behind on the board, then it’s possible you’re more likely to go for a knockout during the pugilism phase. Get rattled there and you’ll have trouble remembering which of Fischer’s gambits worked for you in the past.

Shortly afterward, clubs began popping up in Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and China, with participants encouraged by Rubingh’s Chess Boxing Global arm and intrigued by the exclusivity of chessboxing. Not only was it a fight club, it was one most people didn't know existed. “Say you’re a chessboxer at a party and some really interesting conversation will emerge,” Rubingh says.

The media was captivated. The Los Angeles Times, ESPN, and other outlets traveled to shows to cock their collective heads at the juxtaposition between the cerebral and primal. (The joke, if there was one, was that boxing has always been a contest in which it pays to be several moves ahead.) For a time, it seemed like chessboxing would morph into the next great pursuit of weekend warriors who had tired of mud marathons.

It didn’t quite happen. “The federation in the U.S. hasn’t been very active,” Rubingh says. “The ‘why not’ is a good question.”

Krasnopolskiy formed the USA faction in 2011, having learned chess from his grandfather beginning at age 4 after his family had fled communist Russia. He says that one of the main determining factors is regulation. Fights of any sort are usually under the jurisdiction of state athletic commissions, who license athletes and provide services like health screenings and medical attention for events. Regular boxing or mixed martial arts require little exposition, but chessboxing, with its wayward rules, is an anomaly. The events that have been held in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities come off more as theater than sport, slipping under the radar of commissions. Because of the fractured nature of some clubs, rounds can be longer or shorter; headgear can come and go.

“It’s easier in Europe,” Krasnopolskiy says. “Here, it’s more a matter of securing enough money to have lawyers work on the problem.”

Krasnopolskiy is a bit like a king with no kingdom. USA Chessboxing has no formal gym or office space, just a handful of interested parties spread throughout the country. “The idea would be to find people places to get boxing training, then train them in chess online,” he says. To prepare for the dual mental and physical strains, he says, beginners often alternate chess rounds with running so combatants can begin to learn how to plan strategy under stress.

Rarely will Krasnopolskiy try to turn a highly rated chess player into a pugilist. Most chessboxers are boxers with some amateur experience who want to improve their chess game, either to continue to one of the European competitions or to sharpen themselves for more conventional prizefighting. Max Baumert, a professional kickboxer, has trained in chessboxing for the mental acuity.

“In chessboxing you need to stay focused all the time and you really need to stick to the strategy,” he says. “So the mental part is perhaps even more important than in every other combat sport. That's something that helps me in kickboxing and boxing.”

A chessboxing match, Baumert says, is not simply fighting interrupted by chess. “The pace is much higher because of the longer breaks. There are one-minute breaks between the rounds in [regular] boxing, but in chessboxing there are five minutes of intermission due to the chess rounds so we can fully recover physically. The fighter who’s going to lose in chess has to risk everything in the boxing rounds.”

Krasnopolskiy remembers his first bout being similarly frenetic. “I was up against the ropes in the third round taking a beating. With 10 seconds left, I threw one uppercut. We went into the chess round with him half-dazed, and I won the chess game.”

 
 

With the WCBO championships held every year—the Intellectual Fight Club is more of a minor-league event, the sport's version of Toughman amateur night—Krasnopolskiy hopes to be able to send American representatives soon. “There are a few people I’d like to bring to Europe, and we’re trying to find sponsors [for travel costs] now,” he says.

But chessboxing’s future stateside may reside in other arenas. Krasnopolskiy also operates CheckMates USA, a program that utilizes chess as part of an afterschool curriculum for disadvantaged students. Eventually, he’d like to incorporate chessboxing into the rotation. “I’m teaching boxing to some kids on the south side of Chicago, and hopefully those are kids we can also get into chessboxing,” he says.

A chessboxer wonders what to do next
Chess Boxing Global/Yves Sucksdorff

In Germany, Rubingh sees people at his gym who have been to prison and are looking for a way to handle their lingering aggressions. “A lot of them have heavy backgrounds,” he says. “It’s a way to learn the ability to control [anger], then shift to a mental state.”

Ultimately, part of chessboxing’s growth may hinge on whether spectators decide it’s a sport that promotes personal growth or is slightly absurdist performance art. For Rubingh, it began as a way to explore artistic theory. Since then, he sees no reason it can’t be both.

“As part of the generation of artists I belong to, it’s important to bring something out of the gallery and touch society,” he says. “Doing chessboxing is more interesting than a painting about chessboxing hanging in the Louvre.”

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

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